Introduction to Mildred Pierce

By Callie Khouri

I’m sure it was no mere coincidence that I was asked to introduce this film tonight. After all, the main character is a woman, and I’m a woman so right away, the connection is obvious and complete. I am reasonably certain that the Academy Powers that be would like me to speak about how this movie, and movies of this genre influenced me. Well, the answer to that is profoundly, indelibly, and incurably.

I’m pretty sure I saw “Mildred Pierce,” sometime in the late 60’s, probably on WGN late night when I should have been in bed, but rarely was. The movies from the 1930’s and 40’s, and into the 50’s was where I was introduced to the wonder of women as main characters, and the actresses were phenomenal. They were comediennes, dancers, dramatic actresses, singers, Myrna Loy, Carole Lombard, Claudette Colbert, Katharine Hepburn, Greta Garbo, Greer Garson, Irene Dunne, Jean Arthur, Ginger Rogers, Marlene Dietrich, Barbara Stanwyck, Veronica Lake, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Ingrid Bergman, Rosalind Russell, Lauren Bacall, Ava Gardner, Rhonda Fleming, Rita Hayworth, Ann Blyth. Ida Lupino, (one of the few women who made the long leap to directing during that time, to name a few. I know I’ve left out many names, because they are literally too numerous to mention. God, how I miss them! No disrespect to the many great actresses of today, or should I say, no more disrespect than they’re already experiencing by the dearth and poverty of leading female roles we see in the films of the last few decades. Many people in praise of Thelma and Louise have said to me over the years, “That movie changed everything,” to which I answer “Not enough.

Film Noir lives in the realm of inevitable darkness, something’s coming at you and you don’t know what it is, but you can feel it’s coming and it’s either going to kill you, or you’re going to have to kill it. This genre deals with the moral complexity, the ambiguity of human nature. No one is either all good or all bad. The “special effects” are in the writing, the acting, and the often stunning cinematography. The sharp shadows aren’t just beautiful lighting to create mood and suspense, but serve as a visual metaphor of the human soul. In these movies, murder isn’t random, isn’t only a convenient plot point to turn the story. Movies today can be a cacophony of clicking metal and blazing weaponry, but the sound of one gun cocking can be used to far more terrifying effect when the story is there resonating in our collective psyches, wondering what darkness we ourselves are capable of, when backed against a wall. And unlike many movies of today, it’s not the murder that’s messy, it’s the consequences. As stylized as these films are, they know how to get real. And so to get back to the point of why me, tonight, the women in these films were not merely femme fatales, but complicated and complete women with fully functioning shadow aspects, desires they can’t control, survival instincts that made them just as dangerous as any man. And the clothes were fantastic!

And I would be remiss if I didn’t confess one of my favorite things about film noir, and that is, you can open almost any drawer and there’s likely to be a gun in it. That turns out to be very, very handy sometimes when you’re writing a film.

So, these films are not about heroes and heroines. Although shot in black and white, they are anything but. They are about people struggling, with their dark secrets, their uncontrollable impulses, their worst fears, fears that are almost always realized. Greed, sex, love, envy, lust, class, evil, What else could you possibly need? Only popcorn.

In “Mildred Pierce,” we see a woman who found that to survive, she would have to break with convention, to leave behind society’s expectations, fend for herself, and walk far out on a limb, knowing it could snap from under her at any moment. We see her do the wrong thing, make terrible mistakes, misguided choices, all with motives that are understandable, perhaps even pure, and built on an emotional logic that lets you see, accept, and even empathize with her vulnerability, fallibility and humanity. One bad decision building on another – a concept that was the very spine of “Thelma and Louise.” And of course, a gun in a drawer. So, what do I owe a film like this? Everything.

“Mildred Pierce” among all it’s many great achievements, is the kind of movie that makes movies worth loving. Those great achievements include six nominations for the Academy Awards; Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Eve Arden and Ann Blyth, who we are so honored to have here with us tonight), Best Screenplay by the great Ranald MacDougall, and Best Black-and-white Cinematography and a greatly deserved win for Joan Crawford as Best Actress. Directed by Michael Curtiz, It is my great privilege to join the Academy tonight in presenting to you, “Mildred Pierce.”

Poster
Joan Crawford

Joan Crawford in “Mildred Pierce.”

Callie Khouri

Screenwriter Callie Khouri (“Thelma & Louise,” “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood”) introduces “Mildred Pierce.”

Ann Blyth

Oscar®-nominated actress Ann Blyth speaks about “Mildred Pierce.”